(Reuters/Mark Leffingwell)

"They could have retreated": Why it's time for police to adopt this new tactic

We can improve safety for both police and civilians if deescalation tactics are the new norm. Here's the problem


Heather Digby Parton
January 29, 2015 6:30PM (UTC)

In the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict the police officers who killed Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell interviewed police analysts Eugene O'Donnell and Jim Cavanaugh on his show "The Last Word." Cavanaugh made an interesting point observing that in the past police engaged in high-speed chases no matter what the crime but came to understand that the trade-off in life lost in accidents for anything less that the pursuit of violent felons was not worth it.  He said:

We need to take that attitude to the street. If you would just imagine if Officer Wilson in Ferguson had just taken a step back after the confrontation with the vehicle and after Michael Brown ran away. Just after he called for backup that was 90 seconds away. Where was Michael Brown going to go? He's going to the hospital, he's been shot. He's not going to Kathmandu, on an airplane. You're going to catch him. Just take a step back. In Mr. Garner's case, as well. When he puts his hands like this it's like, "ok ok," when they get on his back, take a step back. In the Cleveland case with the child, if you drive your car in like that, if you have an escaped felon with a gun you're dead, he's going to shoot you as soon as you drive up. What kind of tactic is that? So take a step back and be smart and we can police better than we're doing.

That is a very common sense suggestion.  Despite the fancy gear and the defensive attitude, police aren't actually at war with the population they patrol and it makes no sense that they go from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye when they have other options. The decision to shoot Mike Brown will be a matter of debate for some time to come.  But it's the decision to get out of the car and pursue him before his backup arrived that should really be questioned.

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One could ask the same question about the videotaped shooting a few days after Michael Brown's  of a mentally ill man named Kaijame Powell in St. Louis.  I wrote about that incident in this earlier piece:

A shop owner called the police to report a shoplifter and said he had a knife. The man walks around on the sidewalk in an agitated fashion. A few minutes later a police car races up the street and stops at the curb in front of him, two officers jump out with guns drawn shouting, “Put down the knife!” He says, “Shoot me, shoot me,” and he walks toward the car and they fire their guns, killing him on the spot. The whole altercation took 30 seconds. The St. Louis police chief said that the video of the incident was “exculpatory” and explained that the officers could not have done anything different (like use the tasers they carried on their belt) because nothing else was “guaranteed” to stop the victim.

They could have retreated and waited for backup, tried to talk to him or used a taser (in one of the few instances where it's actually useful).  When you look at the videotape of the incident it's impossible to believe that the police had no other choices. Here's another example from just a few days ago:

On Thursday, 17-year-old Kristiana Coignard was shot dead by three police officers in the lobby of the Longview Police Department. Coignard arrived at the station around 6:30 p.m. and asked to talk to an officer. Police say the girl was “brandishing a weapon” before she was shot four times.

Her aunt explained to the press that her niece suffered from mental illness and said, “I think it was a cry for help. I think they could have done something. They are grown men.” She wondered if there was something the police weren't saying. She was right. They didn't mention in the original reports that the weapon she was "brandishing" was a knife. One should certainly question whether there was something other than opening fire and shooting her dead that authorities safely inside a police station could have done in that situation.

As the analysts on O'Donnell's show explained, this was a matter of training. The other police officer on that show, Eugene O'Donnell, explained that there is something called a "responsibility to reasonably retreat" in situations where the only thing at stake is the authority of the officer.  In these cases of knife-wielding teens with mental problems, the instantaneous decision to shoot appears to have been a reflexive action that might have been avoided with a different set of tactical protocols. Certainly, nobody can say that a mentally ill 17-year-old girl deserved to be killed in a hail of gunfire. At best it was a tragic accident.

And now it seems that some local governments are considering these ideas, notably the St. Louis Police Department, which is said to be debating whether to introduce the concept of a tactical retreat in order to avoid the escalation to violence in situations where it can be avoided. John Firman, the director of development of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, explained that the idea behind tactical retreat really comes down to the question, "How soon do you need compliance?"

"The only case you wouldn’t do that is if someone’s life is critically at risk at that time, for instance if the person is shooting at someone else. The real question is, ‘How soon do you need compliance’? If a person is mentally ill and they’re wandering around and screaming at people, they’re not going to apply. If I’m an autistic child and you say ‘stand up,’ I’m not going to comply. How quickly do you need compliance, how much do you need, and what are the threats to safety? A smart officer is going to assess all of that and do anything necessary to minimize potential that there’s going to be further damage.”

This is eminently reasonable and simple common sense.  If there is any way to deescalate these potentially lethal situations the police must be expected to do it. This hair-trigger (pardon the pun) response is resulting in far too many people lying dead in the street and they are far too often unarmed young black men and the mentally ill. (It's no coincidence that the awful, tragic last words of Eric Garner, "I can't breathe," were echoed by the schizophrenic victim in this notorious incident of police brutality.)

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Police are reportedly very unhappy with this tactic. They think it will make them look weak and empower suspects on the scene.  The fact that they are unhappy about it shows just how much this culture of instant compliance is embedded in their current training.  It is true that when the chips are down the police have the power to take your freedom and your life.  But their job is not to enforce authority. Their job is to protect and serve and that's a different, more complicated task.  It is their duty to use common sense and professionalism to try to save lives, and not just their own.

There are many police officers who possess the skill to handle these difficult situations peacefully. And as the analyst Eugene O'Donnell pointed out in that "Last Word" broadcast, there are also many other professions that have developed tactics and protocols for handling potentially violent altercations without escalating them or resorting to shooting people down within 30 seconds. Good judgment, psychological insight, common sense, confidence and maturity along with sophisticated tactical training rather than brute force and instant compliance are what make for effective policing in a free society.

And the truth is that deescalation tactics are also a matter of self-defense. As Firman, the spokesman for the Chiefs of Police, put it:

"Tactical hold, perimeter hold, is making sure that you’re reducing the likelihood that someone — either the suspect or the officer — is going to be harmed.”

That's the difference between a militarized police force that says the police are like soldiers whose primary goal is to kill the enemy and see themselves and their fellow officers home safe after their tour, and a civilian police force that says an officer's goal is to keep both herself and the public safe. It's not the same thing at all. The sooner we decouple these ideas the better it will be for civilians and cops alike.

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Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

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